For every bustling jazz joint that opened in Korean War–era Harlem, a new church seemed to spring up. Tambourines to Glory introduces you to an unlikely team behind a church whose rock was the curb at 126th and Lenox.
Essie Belle Johnson and Laura Reed live in adjoining tenement flats, adrift on public relief. Essie wants to somehow earn enough money to reunite with her daughter and provide her with a nice home; Laura loves young men, mink coats, and fine Scotch. On a day of inspiration, the friends decide to use a thrift-store tambourine and a layaway Bible to start a church.
Their sidewalk services are a hit: Laura’s a natural street performer who loves the limelight, while Essie is a charismatic singer with a quiet spirituality. Before long they move to a thousand-seat theatre called the Tambourine Temple. The two women are joined in their ministering by Birdie Lee, the little-old-lady trap drummer who can work the congregation to a feverish pitch, and Deacon Crow-For-Day, an impassioned confessor.
But then Laura falls for Buddy, a scam artist who suggests selling to the faithful lucky numbers from Scripture and bottles of tap water as “Holy Water from the Jordan.” Even with a Cadillac and piles of money from Laura, Buddy won’t stay faithful, igniting a crime of passion and betrayal.
Harlem Moon Classics is proud to reintroduce readers of all generations to this sparkling gem from the canon of Langston Hughes.
About the Author
LANGSTON HUGHES (1902–1967), a leading light of the Harlem Renaissance, worked as a novelist, poet, and playwright, in addition to being a mentor and inspiration to other greats.
Read an Excerpt
Tambourines to GloryA Novel
By Langston Hughes
Harlem MoonCopyright © 2006 Langston Hughes
All right reserved.
It was a chilly Palm Sunday and Essie Belle Johnson did not have a palm. Several of the other kitchenette dwellers in her lodgings had been to church that day and returned with leaves, sheaves and even large sprays of palm straw to stick up in their mirrors or in one corner of the frame of Mama's picture.
"I used to always go to church on Palm Sunday when I were a child," Essie said, "as well as Easter, too."
"I seldom went," said Laura, "and never regular. My mother was too beat out from Saturday night to get me up in time to go to church. My step-pa sold whiskey--you know, I growed up in bootleg days. My schooling came from bathtub likker, with some small change left over sometimes to go to movies, buy Eskimo pies."
"My mama always woke me up on the Sabbath before she went to work," mused Essie. "Her white folks only gave her one Sunday off a month. She'd give me a nickel to put in Sunday school and a dime for church, then leave something in the pot for me to eat when I got back home. In the evening, Mama would go to services by herself and turn out the light and leave me in bed until I got teen-age. Then I went to church at night, too. I loved those songs, 'Precious Lord, Take My Hand.' Oh, but that's pretty!Let's go to church Easter, Laura."
"Which one, Sanctified or Baptist?"
"Where the singing is best," said Essie.
"Sanctified," said Laura. "But you know I ain't got nothing to wear to church. On Easter Sunday I should decorate my headlights proper. Man told me last week, said, 'Woman, you got bubbies like the headlights on a Packard car sticking out like two forty-fours. Stop shooting me in the eyes that way with what you carries in front of you.'" Laura drew herself up proudly.
"An out-of-shape woman can get by with some poor rags. But you got a good figure, Laura. If you didn't put so much money into the bottle, you could get yourself some clothes."
"Girl, hush! Chilly as it is tonight, I had to get a little wine. Being Sunday, I had to pay more for it bootleg. There ought to be some heat in this old rat-hole."
"You could have got yourself a hat with what you paid for that wine."
"An Easter bonnet with a blue ribbon on it," sang Laura. "Pshaw, child, by this time next Sunday I might have a new hat. Who knows? Maybe my new man will buy me one."
"If he does, it will be mighty near the first time. You one of these women always buying men something, instead of letting them do for you. You sure are crazy about men, Laura."
"One nice thing about being on relief is, it leaves you plenty time to be sweet to your daddy, have him something ready to eat when he comes from work, have your own head combed. I don't see much sense in a woman working, long as the Home Relief mails out checks. Of course, sometimes I has more energy being idle than I know what to do with. Essie, if I could just set on my haunches and be content like you! You don't even want a drink--just set and get fat, and you're happy."
"I ain't all that happy, Laura. I want my daughter with me. I get lonesome. If it wasn't for you dropping in all the time, I'd be more lonesome. Sure glad you're my neighbor, Laura, even if I can't keep you company with no bottle."
"A few swallows of this and you'd forget about being lonesome. You ought to learn to drink a little, Essie."
"I hate that old raw wine, Laura. It makes me sick at the stomach."
"Your life is empty and your belly, too. You ought to do something. At least, get yourself a man, girl, somebody, anybody."
"A man?" cried Essie. "No! Not to beat me all over the head. I'm cranky. I'm getting set in my ways. And I been long disgusted with men, low-down, no-good as they are."
"Well, smoke a reefer then. Try a little goopher dust. Dope, nope? Live out your life, instead of just setting here gathering pounds. Excite yourself, get high and fly."
"Somehow I kinder like to keep my head clear. Even if I am beat, I like to know it."
"Woman, you sound right simple," declared Laura.
"Anyhow, where would I get the money for them bad habits you're talking about, even if I wanted them?"
"The Lord helps them that helps themselves," declared Laura, shaking the last drop of sherry out of her pint bottle and laying it flat on the porcelain table. "Essie, don't you want no kind of pleasure out of living? You ain't that old. You still got breasts, legs, and what God give you. No fun, you might as well die."
"Sometimes I think so, rooming all by myself like this and living off the Welfare. About all I can do nowadays is ask the Lord to take my hand."
"Well, why don't you do that then? Get holy, sanctify yourself. The Lord is no respecter of persons if He takes a pimp's hand and makes a bishop out of him, like he did with Bishop Longjohn over there on Lenox Avenue. That saint had three whores on the block ten years ago. He's got a better racket now, the Gospel! And a rock and roll band out of this world in front of the pulpit with a piano player that beats Teddy Wilson. That bishop's found himself a great shill."
"Racket, girl, racket."
"Religion don't just have to be a racket, Laura, do it? Maybe he's converted."
"Converted about as much as an atom bomb is converted to peace."
"Longjohn might be converted, Laura."
"All the money he takes in every Sunday would convert me," declared Laura. "Money! I sure wish I had some. Say, Essie, why don't you and me start a church like Mother Bradley's? We ain't doing nothing else useful, and it would beat Home Relief. You sing good. I'll preach. We'll both take up collection and split it."
"What denomination we gonna be?" asked Essie, amused at the idea.
"Start our own denomination, then we won't be beholding to nobody else," said Laura.
"Where we gonna start it?" asked Essie.
"Summer's coming, ain't it? We'll start it on the street where the bishop started his, right outdoors this summer, rent free, on the corner."
Essie grinned. "You mean, in the gutter where we are."
"On the curb above the gutter, girl. We'll save them lower down than us."
"Now, who could they be?"
"The ones who can do what you can't do, drink without getting sick, stay high on Sneaky Pete wine. Gamble away their rent. Play up their relief check on the numbers. Lay with each other without getting disgusted, no matter how many unwanted kids they produce. Use the needle, support the dope trade. Them's the ones we'll set out to convert."
"With Jesus. He comes free," cried Laura. "Girl, you know I think I hit upon an idea. Just ask Jesus to take your hand, in public, Essie. Then, next thing you know, somebody will think He's got your hand, and will put some cash in yours to see if they can make the same contact. Folks is simple. Money they're going to throw away anyhow, so they might as well throw some our way. Just walk with God, and tell the rest of them to follow you, and pay as they go. Dig?"
Taking it like an impossible game, Essie murmured, "Um-hum!" But Laura already saw herself as a lady preacher. Besides, the wine was gone. In her new role, she felt like singing, and she did.
"Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand.
I am weak, I am tired, I am worn."
She had a strange voice, deep, strong, wine-rusty, and wild.
"Through the storms of the night
Lead me on to the light.
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me on."
Essie was moved. "I knowed you could sing blues, Laura, but I never knowed you knew them kind of songs before."
"Pick it up with me," said Laura. "Pick it up, girl."
Cooler, higher and sweeter than Laura's, Essie's voice picked up the song, and the drab cold kitchenette room filled with melody was no longer cold, no longer drab. Even the light seemed brighter.
"When my way grows drear,
Precious Lord, linger near.
When the day is almost gone,
Hear my cry, hear my call,
Guide my feet lest I fall.
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me on."
"Essie, if I could sing like you, I'd be Mahalia Jackson," cried Laura. "You're a songster!"
"Mahalia is a good woman. I ain't," said Essie.
"To make her money, records and all, I'd be willing to be good myself," said Laura.
"It ain't easy to get hold of money. I've tried, Lord knows I've tried to get ahead. Ever since I come up North I been scuffling to get enough money to send for my daughter and get a little two-, three-room apartment for her and me to stay in."
"Pshaw! For love nor money can't nobody get no apartment in Harlem, unless you got enough money to pay under the table."
"Marietta's sixteen and ain't been with me, her mama, not two years hand-running since she were born. I always wanted that child with me. Never had her. Laura, I was borned to bad luck."
"Essie, it's because you don't use your talents, that's why," said Laura, looking at her portly friend with a critical eye. "All you use, like most women, is the what-you-may-call-it that you sets on, your assets instead of your head. Now, me, I got a brain, but I pay it no mind. I hope you will, though, and listen to my advice. Girl, with your voice, raise your fat disgusted self up out of that relief chair and let's we go make our fortune saving souls.
"Remember Elder Becton? Remember that white woman back in depression days, Aimee Semple McPherson, what put herself on some wings and opened up a temple and made a million dollars? Girl, we'll call ourselves sisters, use my name, the Reed Sisters. Even if we ain't no relation, we're sisters in God. You sing, I'll preach. We'll stand on the curb and let the sinners in the gutter come to us. You know, my grandpa down in North Carolina was a jackleg preacher. And when I get full of wine, I can whoop and holler real good. Listen to this spiel."
Laura jumped up from her chair with gestures. "I'll tell them Lenox Avenue sinners," she said, "you-all better come to Jesus! Yes, sinning like hell every night, you better, because the atom bomb's about to destroy this world, and you ain't ready! Get ready! Get ready! I say, aw, let Him take your hand. Yes, sisters, brothers, He's got mine! Let Him take yours and walk with Him. Now, sing with me:
"When the darkness appears,
Precious Lord, linger near.
When my life is almost gone,
At the river I stand,
Guide my feet, hold my hand.
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me on.
"Grab the chorus, Essie. Sing it, girl, sing!"
Essie's voice rose full and persuasive, so persuasive, in fact, that melodically she persuaded herself and Laura, too, that they ought to go out into the streets and move multitudes.
"I sure wish I had me some more wine," sighed Laura when they had finished singing.
"The Wine of God is all we need," Essie said. "Laura, I'm gonna pray." She knelt down with her arms on the chair where she had been sitting. "Lord, I wish you would take my hand. Lead me on, show me the way, help me to be good. Help Sister Laura, too. And help us both to help others to be good. That I wish in my heart, Lord, I do."
"Amen!" cried Laura with her hand on her empty glass.
" 'Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,' " murmured Essie.
"And never catch up with you unless you get up and do something yourself," said Laura.
The next morning, which was a blue Monday, when Laura could hardly scrape together enough change to combinate a number and put a dime on the lead, Essie said as she washed the percolator top, "I prayed again this morning for what we was talking about last night."
Laura, who had left her bed unmade down the hall in Number 7 to tap on Essie's door in the hope of a hot cup of coffee, looked puzzled. "What?"
"That church we gonna start," said Essie. "I believe God answers prayer. In fact, that church is started."
"Right here in this room with you and me."
"Then lemme pass the collection plate," said Laura, "because I dreamed about fish last night--782--and that is a good number to play. Here, put some change in this saucer, and I'll put the number in for you, too."
"I said I was praying, Laura, not playing. If we're gonna save souls, have I got to save you from sin first?"
"Oh, you talking about starting a church?" said Laura, her mind clearing of sleep a little. "Well, as soon as the weather warms up a bit, we'll buy a Bible and a tambourine and plant our feet on the rock of 126th and Lenox and start. But right now, I want me at least forty-five cents to work on these numbers. Suppose fish jumps out today? If it did, and I didn't catch it, I sure would be mad. Girl, pour me one little drop more of that coffee. If I could just find that old Negro who's liking me so much, so he says, I might could maybe get a dollar or two. But he never does come by here on Monday."
"Laura, you oughtn't to be encouraging that married man to be laying up with you."
"He encourages his self," yawned Laura. "Can I help it if I appeal to him whenever he can get out of his wife's sight? The Lord give me my smooth brown body, girl, and I ain't one to let it go to waste. Excuse me, I'm gonna comb my hair and go downstairs and put these numbers in. A small hit's better than none. But I sure hate to be so poor! Maybe that Chinese that winked at me from behind the lunch counter will feel in a lending mood this morning."
"A Christian woman taking up with a heathen," said Essie.
"On a blue Monday morning I would take up with a dog," said Laura, "if the dog said, 'Baby, how about a drink?' Soon as this coffee dies down, I'm gonna need something a little stronger."
Excerpted from Tambourines to Glory by Langston Hughes Copyright © 2006 by Langston Hughes. Excerpted by permission.
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Reading Group Guide
1. Langston Hughes originally wrote Tambourines to Glory as a play. If you were to direct a theatrical production of Tambourines, what elements of direction, scenery, and score would you use to dramatize characters and scenes in the narrative?
2. As she is depicted in the beginning of Tambourines to Glory, would you describe Laura Reed as amoral or immoral?
3. Essie Johnson is portrayed as a humble, pious, and earnest woman. Laura Reed, on the other hand, is hedonistic, selfish, and conniving. How effective are Laura and Essie as foils for each other? Is the stark contrast between the two women effective in elucidating each character? Do these portrayals seem realistic or allegorical?
4. If Essie worships a trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, what trinity does Laura worship? What are her acts of worship?
5. Discuss how Laura appropriates and uses the language of the gospel to support her secret agenda and to defend her behavior.
6. Despite her deceitful nature, Laura positively affects the spiritual lives of members of her congregation. Does the moral deficiency of the messenger necessarily detract from the message? Explain.
7. Though Essie is portrayed as generally moral and good, she is not without fault and not without blame. What is Essie’s sin? Of what is she guilty? Passivity? Idleness?
8. On those occasions when Laura sells bogus holy water to members of the congregation, Essie withdraws from what is going on and meditates. Hughes writes, “Essie’s life had been full of long, long, very long pauses” (page 16). What happens when Essie goes into “pause” mode? Do you think her pause is a show of commendable patience and long suffering? Or is it evidence of passivity and listlessness? How can a “pause” mode be a psychological defense mechanism?
9. Does Laura’s humor and wit ever soften the harshness of her bad deeds? Did you find Laura to be likable despite her evildoing?
10. How does the frequent incorporation of gospel lyrics in Tambourines to Glory shape or affect the narrative?
11. In the opening of Tambourines to Glory, the women exchange stories about their mothers. Neither woman mentions a father, nor does Essie ever reference her daughter Marietta’s father. What significance does the omission of fathers have for the story?
12. Marty is a puppet master of sorts. He is a powerful and well-connected criminal who pulls strings, coerces, and manipulates from behind the scenes - and he is white. What is the effect of having Marty never actually appear in the story? What does Hughes’s second - and thirdhand depiction of Marty - the most significant white character in the story - suggest about the role and function of whites in this largely segregated black community? How are white people generally depicted in (or excluded from) Tambourines to Glory?
13. How does Buddy transform Laura? Accordingly, how does the introduction of Buddy into the text change the course and tone of the story?
14. In what ways does Hughes romanticize and glamorize black life in Harlem? In what ways is he critical of it?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The author was part of the Harlem Renassiance. A poet and playwright, but wrote some novels and short stories. This one was published in 1958, is about two friends, Essie Belle Johnston and Laura Reed who, after reflecting on their poverty, decide to set up a church on the street corner, 126th and Lenox to be exact, to raise people up from the gutter but also to make some money in the process. Essie is a good singer, Laura is a good hustler. And they find that passing the tambourine is a good source of money. They become the Reed Sisters.They first invest in a Bible, then a rented space, then a bigger rented space and finally take over an old theatre that becomes the Tambourine Temple. Laura enjoys the wealth, buying fur coats, cars. Essie continues to look down on this but still enjoys the comforts, finally having a home where she can bring her daughter to. She doesn't quite "turn a blind eye" to Laura's avarice but she tolerates it.In the end it is a morality tale but I wondered about the characters that Hughes create. None are truly sympathetic but Essie does redeem herself in the end.
I really enjoyed this book, especially listening to it on audio.